If you file a civil lawsuit, you probably are seeking some kind of financial compensation in damages. True, suing a party that has wronged you in court helps to make sure the law is upheld and justice is served, but damages are more immediately tangible and impactful. One of the kinds of damages you can ask for is called punitive damages. Punitive damages are the court’s way of punishing defendants who have done something especially bad in order to try and discourage that behavior in the future.

In New Jersey, you can sue for punitive damages, but only under certain circumstances. First, you need to make sure that you request punitive damages in your initial complaint. You cannot decide to ask for them after the fact. Second, you must prove that

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What Are Punitive Damages?

In civil lawsuits, damages are categorized as economic, non-economic, and punitive damages. Economic damages refer to things with real physical monetary value, like medical bills, while non-economic damages cover more esoteric things like pain or emotional distress. Both of those kinds of damages deal with the condition of the plaintiff.

Punitive damages, on the other hand, are based on what the defendant has done. In general, damages are designed to bring the plaintiff back to where they were before they were injured. Punitive damages take that a step further. These damages are meant to punish defendants for especially egregious behavior.

Courts do not award punitive damages in most instances, as the bar for proving that a defendant acted so badly that they are warranted is usually quite high.

Requirements for Punitive Damages in New Jersey

You are allowed to ask for punitive damages in your lawsuit. However, you must specifically ask for punitive damages when you file your claim per N.J.S.A. § 15-5.11. New Jersey permits punitive damages awards under limited circumstances.

That being said, even if your complaint requests punitive damages, it is not guaranteed that you will be awarded them. There are requirements that need to be met in order for a plaintiff to receive punitive damages in a lawsuit. Under N.J.S.A. § 5-15.5.12, the plaintiff must prove by “clear and convincing” evidence that the defendant acted with “actual malice” or “willful disregard” of other people’s safety when they injured the plaintiff.

“Actual Malice”

Under New Jersey law, “actual malice” means that the defendant meant to do something wrong in an “evil-minded” way per N.J.S.A. § 5- “Actual malice” means that the defendant intentionally meant to cause harm to the plaintiff or, alternatively, recklessly disregarded the very likely possibility that the plaintiff or someone else would get hurt. An example of conduct that rises to the level of actual malice would be the defendant physically beating up the plaintiff.

“Willful Disregard”

The other way to get rewarded punitive damages is to prove that the defendant acted with “willful disregard” for the safety of others. This is defined in N.J.S.A. § 5- as a “deliberate act” that a reasonable person would know is very likely to cause harm to someone else. Additionally, the defendant must be indifferent to the consequences of that action. An example of conduct that is willful disregard for the safety of others would be driving at 100 miles an hour in a school zone at the time that classes end. An ordinary person would know that there is a high likelihood that at least one person would get hit by their car and seriously injured.

“Clear and Convincing” Evidence

In order to recover punitive damages, you need to show “clear and convincing” evidence that the defendant’s conduct warrants those damages. N.J.S.A. § 5- defines “clear and convincing” as leaving no serious doubt as to whether the defendant’s conduct meets that threshold. This is a very high standard that is tougher to meet than the “preponderance of evidence” needed to prove the defendant is liable for your injuries. However, it is not as high a standard as “beyond a reasonable doubt,” which is used in criminal cases.

Limits on Punitive Damages in New Jersey

New Jersey is a state that puts a limit on the amount of financial compensation you can receive as punitive damages. Per N.J.S.A. § 5-15.5.14, a court cannot award punitive damages in an amount greater than five times the plaintiff’s other damages or $350,000 – whichever is the larger amount. This means that the maximum punitive damages a defendant can ever receive in a case is $350,000, even if the jury decides that the appropriate amount of punitive damages is millions of dollars.

The jury is also responsible for determining the exact amount of punitive damages a defendant will pay. Under N.J.S.A. §, the jury should take into account all evidence presented in court, whether the defendant knew that injury was likely because of their conduct, and whether that evidence makes it “clear and convincing” that punitive damages are warranted. The jury should also take into account the profitability of the defendant’s actions as well as the defendant’s finances. For example, suppose a plaintiff got injured while safely and responsibly using a jet ski and decides to sue the jet ski company. The trial then shows that the jet ski company elected to omit standard safety features in order to cut costs and raise profits. The jury should take that information into account when determining whether a plaintiff should be awarded punitive damages for their injuries.

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